Dad’s heart

Dad BHIA girl can get greedy, and become disillusioned, when her dad has a heart transplant in 1994 and is still around to celebrate his heart day every Feb. 24 for 25 years. And then celebrates his 80th birthday. I considered 2019 a good year for my dad, James H. Caldwell, MD. His birthday was on a Wednesday in March, so we planned to whoop it up in his honor in July at Bald Head Island, our beloved Caldwell family vacation spot. We will still observe that birthday and celebrate his remarkable life in late July. His seat will be empty, but he will be with us.

Dad died at around 9 p.m. Wednesday, June 5, at Ohio State’s Ross Heart Hospital. He had been hospitalized for 10 days for what began as a GI bleed. Multiple tests failed to identify the source of the bleed, and it eventually stopped after he was taken off his blood thinner. He experienced a slowed heart rate during one test, leading to some electrophysiology testing and procedures. His last procedure, to check for clots in his atrium (no clots found), was successfully completed Wednesday afternoon. He’d be in for observation for two days and home by the weekend. And then, disaster struck, in what we assume was a pulmonary embolism, or perhaps a massive heart attack.

Being in the hospital meant Dad was missing valuable late spring outdoor time. A lover of gardening for as long as I’ve been alive, he became a Master Gardener through OSU Extension over the many months of his recovery after his heart transplant. The house he and his wife Pat have lived in since 1991 has an enormous yard with room for vast perennial beds and a sizable vegetable garden — one of its major selling points. Poor Dad could never convince me to love gardening. I like the cosmetic and culinary results but I hate the work. But he had tomatoes and peppers that were ready for planting, pronto, and I was tasked with getting that done. I took it seriously, following his instructions and the layout he had drawn on a scrap piece of paper. “Lord help me if they don’t thrive,” I joked in a text to my siblings.

I enjoyed sending text updates over the past week to my brothers and sisters, who live in Seattle, Iowa, Grand Rapids, Cleveland and Brooklyn. The news about his health was always pretty good. Dad lost his temper one day with the medical staff because he was frustrated with the poor communication among the various teams working on his care – two different heart services and the GI service. His spirited response conveyed he had energy, an improvement over his weakness from anemia when he entered the hospital. And yet, for a long time he was what I describe as fragile, physically. Immunosuppression drugs take a toll on the human body, and he had osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, stress fractures, muscle detachments, renal failure and I don’t even know what else. He had a bad infection last summer that set him back further, but, as a very compliant physical therapy patient, he rebounded nicely.

With Mom, whose death I anticipated for 10 years, I found myself surprised about how devastatingly sad I was when she died, considering I wanted her suffering to end. Dad has been fragile for many years, but was always fine with minimizing acknowledgment of his physical limits. So all of our conversations at the hospital over the past 10 days were characterized by an expectation that he would go home, take some time to regain strength, get back to the garden and ride in the car with me and Patrick for the trip to Bald Head Island. And so, his death was unexpected. And of course, I am devastatingly sad, while I am also so grateful that he lived as long as he did.

Dad was a master diagnostician, an educator, an intellectual, a conversationalist and storyteller, a lover of classical music, a foodie, an avid consumer of news and information, and, since the early 2000s, a progressive political activist. He and Pat were devoted to each other, and spent very little time apart over the course of their long marriage. And he leaves a legacy in his kids who, along with our families, are smart, talented — musicians, writers, poets, scholars (we all have postsecondary educations) — thoughtful, temperamental, driven by conviction, funny and a little bit (or a lot) cynical, and, like Dad, have a healthy appetite for delicious food and all of the joys, big and small, that life has to offer.

12 comments so far

  1. Barbara Vogel on

    When you lose both your parents there is a profound loneliness. I am glad I met you dad once. It is amazing and wonderful that he had the courage for his heart transplant years ago. Deepest sympathies to you, Patrick, and your family.

  2. Garth Lough on

    So many good memories of your Dad and your Mom – a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes as I read this. I was just driving down by Shadyside on my job a couple of weeks ago and I was thinking about your Dad and his family – knowing they had a place over there, though I never went down there to visit with you guys. Godspeed to Uncle Jim.

  3. Kathie Caldwell on

    So sorry for your loss. I met your Dad at a Caldwell family reunion. I lost my Dad, Jack Caldwell, when he was 49. He never met the Ohio Caldwells but gave me a copy of a written Caldwell history from Dorothy Caldwell although they never met. There is something profoundly sad about losing ones father. Your Dad was indeed brave. I am proud to share his political views and always enjoyed hearing about them through Facebook. My condolences to you and the family. Kathie Caldwell (Okla)

  4. Sharon Thomson on

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Your Dad sounds like an amazing person! Thank you for still posting from time to time.

  5. Kim Marel Ronin on

    So sorry to hear this Emily. I lost my Dad suddenly last year, and my Mom to dementia a few years ago, so I can relate to what you are going/went through. Loosing my Dad was so much harder. I’m glad you have an outlet for your feelings like this blog. Take Care of yourself.

  6. momsbrain on

    Barb: I know you know how this feels, and I regret not being more “there” for you at the time. Garth: I’m so glad you have happy memories of Dad, and Mom. Thank you for following this blog. Kathie: I’m so sorry your dad passed at such a young age. Terrible. I saw on Facebook that you were a political ally – liberal Caldwells unite! Sharon: Thank you for reading! I want to post more often and, well, fresh grief may inspire that. Kim: We really do have similar experiences. I’m so sorry for the loss of both your parents.

    Thank you all for commenting.

  7. Cameron Smith on

    Thanks for sharing so much about your great Dad. I am so sorry for your loss but glad to know you’ve gotten to share so much amazing time with him all these years. Love you Emily.

  8. momsbrain on

    Thanks so much, Cam. Love you, too.

  9. Maggie Garrett on

    Dear Emily,
    I am so sorry for your loss. I didn’t know your father except through your blogs. He seems to have been one of those fathers every child should have. I know you and his world will be less for his going. My thoughts and prayers are with you and Patrick and your family.
    Love, Maggie Garrett

  10. Chuck Hardy on

    An extraordinary man who led an extraordinary life. Jim Caldwell was a man of many surprises. He had a patrician’s bearing but also had a profound understanding or a working man’s life. A truly gentle man but he evinced astonishing toughness in the face of his many health battles. He’ll be deeply missed.

  11. Margie Lucas on

    I was so saddened by the loss of my cousin Jim.
    I have to tell you a funny story about Jim. At around the age of four, Jims father, my uncle, brought Jim down to the farm to visit grandma Caldwell.
    While playing outside, Jim must have backed up too far and fell backwards into a full, 5 gallon slop bucket that we fed to the pigs. Uncle Bob asked Jim if he was hurt. Jim’s reply was, “no, but it hurt my dignity”.
    How many four year olds could have an answer like that!
    Jim had so much intelligence at a very young age. He could read the newspaper before he started school.
    After Jim received his new heart, I told him how our church had prayed for the success of the surgery. He said, I felt them. Jim was an active member of the Shadyside Presbyterian Church while still in high school.
    Our political views flop flopped in the last few years, but we respected each other’s opinions.
    Jim was the youngest boy and I the youngest girl of the Caldwell grandchildren, Jim being six months older than me.
    He will be missed by all of us. Always my go to person with a medical question or advice.
    God Bless you Jim, until we meet again.
    Love Marge.

  12. momsbrain on

    Maggie: Thanks so much for your support. Chuck: I love your description of Dad. Thank you for that, and for commenting here. Margie: That is a great story about Dad! Grandma used tell us he didn’t speak until he was…2, I think?…and then began talking in sentences. He was developing a big vocabulary and soaking up knowledge before he ever uttered a word. Thanks for the comment, and for coming to the calling hours.


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